Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Even before language, babies learn the world through sounds

It's not just the words, but the sounds of words that have meaning for us. This is true for children and adults, who can associate the strictly auditory parts of language— vowels produced in the front or the back of the mouth, high or low pitch—with blunt or pointy things, large or small things, fast-moving or long-staying things.

Do the same principles apply for young infants, and not just to things, but also to abstractions? A new study by Marcela Peña, Jacques Mehler, and Marina Nespor, working together at the International School for Advanced Studies, in Trieste, Italy and Catholic University of Chile, says yes. For the first time ever, the researchers have demonstrated that these physical properties of speech are associated, very early in life, with abstract concepts—in this case, larger and smaller. The findings will be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

The researchers worked with 28 four-month-old babies from Spanish-speaking homes. The babies sat on their parents' laps (the parents were visually masked) in a soundproof room, into which were piped nonsense syllables composed of consonants followed by the vowels I or O, or E or A. The babies were simultaneously shown larger and smaller versions of circles, ovals, squares, or triangles, in different colors. Using an eye tracker, experimenters recorded which object the infants looked at first and how long they gazed at each object.

In previous research, adults reared in many different languages have shown an association of I and E sounds with small objects and O and A with large ones. In this study, the babies were shown objects that were larger or smaller in comparison to one another.

From the very start and almost 100 percent of the time, the babies directed their gaze first and looked longer at the smaller objects when they heard syllables using I or E, and at the larger ones with O or A.

"We don't know if this is something we are born with or something we have to learn —but it is a very early capacity," says Peña. She stresses that "the baby is not learning the word—bigger, smaller, ball, triangle—itself." Rather, she or he is "exploiting the physical properties of a sound to help categorize another [abstract] property of the environment."

Why is this important? "Early cognitive development is highly unknown. We want to understand how the infant very early in life can have a notion of the conceptual." The findings "suggest that a part of [language learning] is based on the physical property of the stimulus itself, not just on a symbolic mind."

The study gives researchers new methodologies to investigate the process of language and conceptual development —and to look at some of the persistent questions in cognitive psychology and linguistics: "What is the nature of language? Is everything symbolic or arbitrary?" Peña asks. "Or are there particular physical aspects of learning that we exploit" to begin to make sense of a large, complex, and—for a tiny infant—brand-new world.

For more information about this study, please contact: Marcela Peña Garay at

The APS journal Psychological Science is the highest ranked empirical journal in psychology. For a copy of the article "The Role of Audio-Visual Processing in Early Conceptual Development" and access to other Psychological Science research findings, please contact Divya Menon at 202-293-9300 or

Divya Menon | EurekAlert!
Further information:

More articles from Studies and Analyses:

nachricht Diagnoses: When Are Several Opinions Better Than One?
19.07.2016 | Max-Planck-Institut für Bildungsforschung

nachricht High in calories and low in nutrients when adolescents share pictures of food online
07.04.2016 | University of Gothenburg

All articles from Studies and Analyses >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

Im Focus: New Products - Highlights of COMPAMED 2016

COMPAMED has become the leading international marketplace for suppliers of medical manufacturing. The trade fair, which takes place every November and is co-located to MEDICA in Dusseldorf, has been steadily growing over the past years and shows that medical technology remains a rapidly growing market.

In 2016, the joint pavilion by the IVAM Microtechnology Network, the Product Market “High-tech for Medical Devices”, will be located in Hall 8a again and will...

Im Focus: Ultra-thin ferroelectric material for next-generation electronics

'Ferroelectric' materials can switch between different states of electrical polarization in response to an external electric field. This flexibility means they show promise for many applications, for example in electronic devices and computer memory. Current ferroelectric materials are highly valued for their thermal and chemical stability and rapid electro-mechanical responses, but creating a material that is scalable down to the tiny sizes needed for technologies like silicon-based semiconductors (Si-based CMOS) has proven challenging.

Now, Hiroshi Funakubo and co-workers at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, in collaboration with researchers across Japan, have conducted experiments to...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

Resolving the mystery of preeclampsia

21.10.2016 | Health and Medicine

Stanford researchers create new special-purpose computer that may someday save us billions

21.10.2016 | Information Technology

From ancient fossils to future cars

21.10.2016 | Materials Sciences

More VideoLinks >>>